New England Soccer Today

3 Things: #USAvPAN

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/

The U.S. Men’s National Team may have a long line of contests against some of the world’s strongest and most seasoned teams later this year, but Sunday night’s game against a plucky Panama side at the StubHub Center could present more opportunities than usual for budding prospects to shine.

Sunday’s match should be relatively manageable for the U.S. compared to upcoming exhibitions against Switzerland (Mar. 31), Netherlands (Jun. 5) and Germany (Jun. 10), which are all expected to be played on European soil. But this inexperienced U.S. team measures up fine with 55th ranked Panama, whose players are mostly common adversaries for Jurgen Klinsmann’s domestic call-ups in MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play.

For U.S. players who are looking to leave a positive impression ahead of tougher competition, performing well against Panama will be key.

Here are my three things to look out for:

Score out west, young man! — Sunday’s game will allow plenty of U.S. players with fewer than five caps to make a splash, but will there be one performance that stands out above the rest? In a new midfield set-up, could Perry Kitchen emerge as the next Kyle Beckerman or Michael Bradley? Can Steve Birnbaum bring the poise and discipline he brought to D.C. United last season to the back line and be this World Cup cycle’s version of Matt Besler? Gyasi Zardes has an opportunity to push Chris Wondolowski for a regular spot in future camps – will he take his chance Sunday if he’s given it? It may still be early to project which players will make a difference in qualification or at a World Cup, but there’s no reason why Sunday can’t be the launching pad for at least one new rising star.

Controlling the midfield — The 3-5-2 formation is tough to pull off as it emphasizes and requires teamwork, passing accuracy, and inventiveness on all sides of the ball. When it’s executed properly, it’s beautiful to watch. When it’s not, there’s plenty of chaotic, disjointed play. Getting used to a new formation is tricky, especially when national team training camps last all but a few weeks and players are balancing the tactics of their club team. But controlling the midfield and dictating play is something that’s historically been lacking for the U.S. With so many strong midfield players, the 3-5-2 might be the U.S.’s recipe for success. It will be easier to practice and experiment with against a regional foe like Panama, so Sunday will be a litmus test.

Competitively friendly — This may be a friendly, but don’t just expect the Panamanians to sit back and let the U.S. go at them. Remember that the last time these two teams met, the U.S eliminated them from qualifying for the World Cup – and on their home soil. That heartbreak may still run deep, so don’t be shocked to see Panama playing with some edge. The guests may administer an easier test than Switzerland, Netherlands, or Germany on paper, but don’t count them out. This is a team that occasionally pulls off shock wins — even against the U.S. — and is eyeing a place in Russia.

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